I have always been fascinated by the sight of tall, ornate gates that are part of large, ornamental entrances ways to homes, estates, cemeteries and parks. There is a sense for me of something transformational in passing through such a gate. Much of this thinking developed within me as a child when my Mom gave me her childhood library which consisted of the twelve volume series “My Book House” edited by Olive Beaupre Miller.
Having these books within my bedroom linked me to my Mother’s childhood during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Mom told me how Grandma Josie would buy the books one volumne at a time from a salesman who stopped by the house on a regular basis. Later, when I inherited Grandma Josie’s collection of photos and cards, I found little notes, drawings and tracings done with my Mom and her little brother Jerry. These drawings and tracings were inspired by the contents of one volume in the series for parents to use when engaged in storytelling time or play time with their children. The instructions integrate stories from each volume into the planned activities to maximize educational and creative development in the child.
I was deeply touched to find that even my Grandmother was influenced by these books. One volume in the series was called “Through the Gate”. On the cover are two little children, a boy and girl dressed in the style of perhaps early-mid 19th century England. They stand before a large door to what looks like a very large house. The little boy is on tiptoes about to reach for the knocker on the door. Mom always referred to books as gateways to other worlds and times. She emphasized that everything we see has a meaning beyond just what we see. As a child this kept me continually seeking her out to find out what the meaning of an object could be, besides the obvious one. In the case of this book she said the gate referred to in the title meant that when the book was opened we entered a different world. While we read the book we were somewhere between our everyday world and a very special realm where the story was taking place. She used the present tense to describe this participation in the act of reading.
This was something my teachers at school never did. So it was only natural that I went to these books night after night before going to bed convinced that I was leaving the ho-hum life of school and Dyker Heights behind. These thoughts came to me when my maternal Grandparents, Sam and Josie Serrapede, took me to Italy in the summer of 1976. We visited the ancestral hometown of the Muro and Serrapede families in Agropoli, a small town in Salerno in Campania. Our ancestors lived high atop a hill that overlooked the sea. Access was obtained by climbing a long flight of wide steps and passing through the ancient Byzantine Gate that marks the entry to the Old Town of Agropoli.
I can still see the ancient gate within my mind but in a different way as this family history adventure begins. As a tourist I saw the obvious in the natural beauty of the area and experienced with my senses the hot sun and the long summer days during that vacation. Now, though, I not only see within my mind the town but feel all around me a connection to my ancestors who lived there long ago. Growing up as an Italian-American did nothing to connect me with the past the way genealogy has done now.
As a third generation member of the family my experiences growing up were much different from my Uncle Sammy, the second son of Josie and Sam Serrapede. In his world the quality of life during childhood was still influenced by the patterns of family life the first generation of our immigrant ancestors brought to America. By the time I was born, the experience of growing up Italian-American in Brooklyn had changed even more. In the next posting, I will share some of our memories since they provide an interesting, and sometimes humorous, view of what our concept of our ancestral country was like vs. what we experienced when we went to visit Italy for the first time.
Written: September 5, 2014 Friday night 11:40 p.m.